Andre Braugher, an actor with only three national appearances, is someone you don't forget.
On screen, he jumps out of his taut frame, glowing in a classic scene-stealing fashion. He did it in the movie "Glory" as the educated freedman who volunteers to fight with the 54th Regiment. He did it in "Kojak" as he matched wits with Telly Savalas. And he's doing it again as the scheming Iago of "Othello," now at the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger.
Braugher has left a mighty impression.
Yet on a recent rainy afternoon, Braugher was not his searing stage self. He was sleepy and whipped. It was only hours after two demanding performances as Shakespeare's demi-demon Iago. He had pulled on some lazy-day gray cord slacks, a blue polo shirt, gray suede wingtips and a denim jacket. But his drowsiness was nothing some coffee, a Marlboro and a cranberry juice chaser couldn't cure.
Only then did he smile -- a beam of playful wattage that Braugher holds in check too much. He is only 28, two years out of Juilliard School of Drama and six years out of Stanford University, where he started out to be a doctor. And he only laughs the laugh of irony and frustration.
"I may not be the best actor in the world, but I just can't do the one-dimensional roles. I can't do cartoons of people," Braugher says, moving from the rear of an upholstered wing chair to its edge. "If the role is sweet, I want to turn it ugly. If it is ugly, I want to turn it sweet."
Keeping to his personal resolve has taken some doing, given what Braugher calls "the trash" a young black actor is offered.
"There is a super-conservative strain, almost like it is trying to yank us back into the past, seemingly less complex times," he says. The characters coming out of this thinking, says Braugher, are "a lot of nigger roles ... stereotypical, stupid, lazy, dumb, shiftless, unhuman, less than civilized. They are pushing this forward as mass culture. This is what black Americans are like. And I say, 'No. I am a black American. I don't like it.' Not only am I not doing these roles, I am not going to tell you I am not doing them. I am throwing them in the garbage can."
These are echoes of the complaints of an Ossie Davis in the '40s, a Sidney Poitier in the '50s, a James Earl Jones in the '60s, a Billy Dee Williams in the '70s, a Denzel Washington in the '80s.
Now it's the '90s, and the infuriating truth is that Braugher, and others such as Charles Dutton, are finding that theater work outside of Shakespeare and August Wilson is spare and movie work is vanishing.
But Braugher has etched his place, with careful choice and craftsmanship. In looking at his work in "The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson," a film shown on Turner Network Television in October, the New York Times said Braugher "demonstrates once again that he stands out among today's more accomplished younger actors." Noting his short career, which has included the television movie "Murder in Mississippi," American Film magazine described his "blazing directness that slices right through anyone in front of him, including the audience."
"Glory," released two years ago, was his professional film debut. Even now people remember him immediately as "the one with the glasses" -- small, round, thick spectacles -- through which he conveyed that he was a whole man, thinking, judging. As Thomas Searles, Braugher carried his book of Emerson and Thoreau to the camp where the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts was trained for its historic role in the Civil War. He also carried his assumptions that Searles' white friend since childhood, Col. Robert Gould Shaw, would be a strong ally in this experiment.
On paper, Braugher recalls, Searles was an effete crybaby. "I defy that," he says. "I saw him as an educated man who had never had an opportunity to test himself, who was disenfranchished from the European culture he read about. ... He tries to get back to something. He's a patriot, a friend." In one scene, he jostled with Denzel Washington's character, Trip, over light and space in their tent. Trip, the hardheaded outsider, says, "I love it when niggers talk good like white folk." Searles says, "I'd be happy to teach you." And Trip replies, "Hey Snowflake, I ain't got nothing to learn from a house nigger."
Says film critic Steve Vineberg, who directed Braugher at Stanford: "With him you get the sense that the character has had these struggles and he is bringing that knowledge to the moment. Searles knows he has been lucky, and when he is challenged by Washington you know that."
The merits of "Glory" are still being debated. In Reconstruction, a journal edited by Randall Kennedy, a professor at Harvard Law School, the movie is castigated for incorrect history and shallow portrayals. "Why then do we have in 'Glory' scrupulous attention to the details of battles, a plausible portrayal of Colonel Shaw validated by his voice-over reading from actual letters and every single African-American character of consequence reduced to stock central casting anonymity?"
Granting that American cinema has often put together misfits who grow to be friends and heroes in battle, Braugher says: "I have no qualms with what they are saying. But I don't care. To deconstruct the movie is to deny there were living, breathing characters. I understand, I agree in some ways, but I don't care. Theater is an act to be experienced."
With his other commercial roles, Braugher describes a battle to keep them valid. When he saw the synopsis for Winston Blake, a detective on last season's revival of "Kojak," he thought the character was complex and interesting. "I said, 'I think it would be interesting to have a sniff-dog, paranoid' " -- and he laughs, perhaps recalling the reaction around the scriptwriters' table -- "a paranoid hyperaggressive cop. I wanted to see where that went. The kind of cop who is suspicious of everything. People walk in and he looks at them. He has to figure them out before he goes on with the conversation." He says the early episodes did achieve his kind of mental tricks but eventually his role "dwindled down." The series was canceled in May.
"It soured me on the pace of TV ... episodic TV, 17-day shoots, move to this, move that. We were filming so many pages a day. I wanted them to constantly change lines," says Braugher, stopping short because he is beginning to sound like a prima donna. "Finally at one point I said I am going to do it. I am going to do what I do. I am going to go back to the foundation of acting, which is the relationship between people."
In the Jackie Robinson movie, the story took a little-known slice of Robinson's life before he achieved his niche in history as the first black to play major league baseball. Drafted into the Army, he faced a host of formal and informal prejudices. He rebelled, was arrested and tried.
Initially, Braugher says, the character was paper-thin, a hero with no scars and no motivation. "He was moving unscathed through the world, which was kind of silly because this was 1940 and America. I said, 'I don't get this,' 'I don't understand him,' 'I don't get Jackie Robinson'," recalls Braugher. After what he describes as several rewrites, the Robinson role became one with which he could work.
In this, his second movie, Braugher got to kiss the girl, a milestone because kisses between black men and women on screen are scattered over the decades, and he got to walk his walk. Braugher has a princely erectness, even out of military roles, wherein he walks with a quick slide, giving his gait a little spring. When his walk, which is noticeably missing from Iago, is described to him, he puts the coffee cup down and he laughs. He says he never noticed.
It was a youthful impulse that turned him to acting. A graduate of an all-male Jesuit high school in Chicago, he was directed to premed and engineering because of very high math scores. His parents, a heavy-equipment operator and a postal worker, were great mentors. "I have people who taught me how to be a man. I am not a perfect one but I am here, I am whole, I am not consumed by other agendas," he says.
Braugher left high school without ever having had a date. After his first two years at Stanford University, he still hadn't been lucky or interested. Things just looked better over in the drama department. "I was in the middle of the grind and I wasn't meeting interesting people. ... I wanted to know women. What are they? How do we communicate? How do we commune?" he says. He auditioned for a play of bits and pieces from "Hamlet," found the acting fun and a group of colleagues who were "astute."
At Stanford, Vineberg directed David Rabe's "The Basic Training of Pablo Hummel" and cast Braugher as the black alter ego of the main white character. "He is supposed to be pure soul, and there is no way of telling an actor to do that. He was amazing. He could take anything and go as far as he could go," says Vineberg. He says Braugher doesn't fit neatly into an acting school. "What he does naturally is the romantic. Like Edmund Kean of the 19th century. They used to say watching Kean was like watching Shakespeare with flashes of lightning."
What he brought to Juilliard, remembers Michael Kahn, the Folger's artistic director and one of Braugher's teachers at the school, was a raw magnetism. "He had enormous power, strength and presence. Actors learn how to use their presence, and he developed ease and the use of his imagination," says Kahn. After Juilliard, Braugher stayed in New York. He lives in Harlem and has a firm relationship with actress Ami Brabson.
In his acting style, Braugher steals. His list of influences starts with the actresses, such as Genevieve Bujold and Meryl Streep, and then draws in James Earl Jones, Sidney Poitier, Cicely Tyson, Avery Brooks and Robert De Niro. It's a mark of how intense a student of the craft he is that he describes the work of the late John Cazale, Fredo Corleone of the first "Godfather," and relives in exacting detail that horrible moment in the film when Fredo is killed on a lake in a fishing boat by his brother's hit man.
So, given his standards, naturally he's worried about his take on Iago. The veteran of four productions at the New York Shakespeare Festival, he's been doing "Othello" since May when Harold Scott introduced the pairing of Brooks and Braugher at the Rutgers Shakespeare Company.
His interpretation, he says, his fast words indicating his own impatience, isn't "full yet." The role "is already complex," he admits, but now he is striving to "make him understandable. He is a little alien. You know, why are you trying to do all of this stuff." And he's working against the formidable image of Iago as the prince of villains. "I want to create a resonance between Othello and Iago, a relationship that begins before the curtain," he says. "What I think is really beautiful, really ingenious about this casting is it disperses all the racial hatred between Iago and Othello. You see why this man does what he does."
And when the trough of mainstream roles are scarce, there's always Shakespeare to come back to.
"I think I am outgrowing Troilus, and Romeo is gone too. I am going to stop looking youthful pretty soon," and he laughs, his voice thick with the rumble of an old subway. "This voice is a crutch -- it is pushing me somewhere else."